The Colour of Magic (1983): Terry Pratchett


The Discworld Reread: Book I

About twenty years ago, I found a secondhand book in a charity shop or at a jumble sale (it was 35p, according to the scrawled pencil inscription in the front). This was The Colour of Magic, the first in a long line of Discworld novels that would appear for birthdays and Christmases, and which would soon become a defining feature of my teenage years. Then there was the series of Discworld maps; the quizbook; the art book; the companion guide; and the three computer games (Discworld Noir was brilliant: I’m still sad that it won’t work on current editions of Windows). Yes: I was a bit of a Discworld geek. I still dip into the books now and then, when I need something light and cuddly. And, in the aftermath of the existential gloom of The Evenings, that’s exactly what I needed. So I decided to embark on a structured reread, book by book, of this much-loved series.

The Colour of Magic is the book I’ve reread least in the intervening years. Part of that is because it feels very different to the books which would succeed it. But it’s important because it gives us an introduction to Pratchett’s tongue-in-cheek fantasy universe, and to two characters in particular who cast a long shadow across the rest of the series, even if they don’t appear that often: the hapless wizard Rincewind and the Luggage.

Let’s start at the beginning, just in case there’s anyone who has never read the books. The Discworld is a flat, circular world that moves through space in an utterly reasonable fashion: balanced on the backs of four enormous elephants, which in turn stand on the shell of a vast intergalactic turtle called Great A’Tuin. It’s a world shaped and powered by magic, and is home to a whole range of fantasy creatures, as you might expect. The greatest city on the Disc is the twin city of Ankh-Morpork, divided by the river Ankh, one of the most pestilent watercourses known to mankind. And it’s here that The Colour of Magic begins, on a dark night when the city is being consumed by a fierce inferno. Two rogues watch the conflagration from a nearby hilltop, and are soon joined by a curious pair of travellers: a stressed-looking wizard and a peculiar foreigner. And what’s that strange shadowy thing in the darkness behind them?

Kidby: The Discworld

The Discworld © Paul Kidby

The wizard tells the rogues the story of how Ankh-Morpork came to be in flames – how he was minding his own business one day in the Broken Drum (one of the city’s most notorious taverns), when this foreigner appeared. The traveller, Twoflower, is from the fabled Agatean Empire and is a species that no one in Ankh-Morpork has formerly encountered: the tourist. Twoflower has come, full of excitement, to see everything he’s read about in his dull life as a clerk: the heroes; the barfights; magic; and maybe even a dragon or two. And he comes laden with gold. Rincewind, who has made a passable living as a translator in view of his complete inability to use magic, is the only one who can communicate with him. And soon a new partnership has been formed, cemented by Twoflower’s gold, the needs of Ankh-Morpork’s rulers to curry favour with the Empire, and the fierceness of Twoflower’s Luggage. This chest, made of sapient pearwood, appears to be just an average large travelling trunk, but has an unnerving ability to sprout hundreds of little legs. And teeth, when necessary. And so – through the four short stories that make up this first novel – Rincewind finds himself, unwillingly, following the Disc’s first tourist through an escalating series of adventures that will bring them into contact with the forces of darkness, dragons and the very edge of the world.

It’s curious for me to come back to this novel, having grown familiar with Pratchett’s style in the later books. There, when he’s become comfortable with his world, the stories tend to be amusing tales of culture-clash, about what happens when a concept from our world strays into the unpredictable mix of the Discworld – rock music, moving pictures or pyramids; the tales of Faust or The Phantom of the Opera. His recurring cast of characters are straightforward, practical people, trying to live normal lives in an abnormal world. But this first book is different. Here, Pratchett is riffing on the tropes of sword-and-sorcery fantasy: the musclebound heroes and the rogues; the dragons, princesses and demons. It all feels very Conan the Barbarian and not at all like the Discworld that develops later on.

The division into four short stories also feels odd. The first, The Colour of Magic, focuses on the great fire of Ankh-Morpork and introduces us to the city structure: the Thieves’ Guild; the Assassins’ Guild (who become so much cooler later on); and the Patrician (this one appears to be Lord Vetinari’s predecessor). Similarly, we have a token appearance by the Watch, but they’re still just a generic fantasy city watch without any of the individuality we get later. Then there’s The Sender of Eight, which ventures into Conan territory, with barbarians, temples to dark gods and demons. Next up, The Wyrmberg, which seemed to be a parody of Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonflight, in that the lady of the Wyrmberg is called Liessa, and her dragonriders all have names in which punctuation has muscled its way into unexpected places (‘K!sdra’, for example). Finally there’s Close to the Edge, which feels ever so slightly closer to the spirit of later Discworld books, in which the travellers find themselves in the Rim-side country of Krull.

Were I to read this now, it wouldn’t capture my attention. It feels derivative in many ways, without any of the gleeful creative chaos that emerges later in the series. Pratchett is trying things out, feeling his way, and it shows. Maybe it’s not the best place to start, if you’re coming to the Discworld universe as a newbie nowadays. But it does get better. Trust me. Down the line we have some wonderful stories to encounter, and I’m looking forward to mixing them in with more ‘serious’ books as we move into the New Year.

Buy the book

Next in the series – The Light Fantastic

The original cover artist for the Discworld novels was Josh Kirby (1928-2001), whose style was very much suited to the initial semi-sword-and-sorcery feel of the books. But I confess that my heart has always been with the art of Paul Kidby, whose visions of the characters perfectly align with mine. As I go through the series, I plan to share some of his related art with you as well.

Kidby: The Tourist

The Tourist (Rincewind and Twoflower) © Paul Kidby

6 thoughts on “The Colour of Magic (1983): Terry Pratchett

  1. Heloise Merlin says:

    I suspect that at this stage, Terry Pratchett was still trying hard to become the next Fritz Leiber, and in consequence the early Discworld books read like a watered down <Fafhrd and Grey Mouser with rather more emphasis on parodying Fantasy clichés. I have to admit that I never really grew warm with the Discworld and am feeling ambivalent even about the later books which everyone says are great, so I might be totally wrong here. 😉

    • The Idle Woman says:

      I’m not sure the comment is quite complete but yes, that’s exactly the sort of thing I felt from it. Fortunately by Book II we’re well on the way to proper Discworld and he’s found his own voice a bit better. But it’s so interesting starting from the beginning like this, and watching him develop as a writer, as well as seeing the world itself take shape.

  2. Isi says:

    Can you believe I still haven’t started this series? I want to do it soon, but now I’m thinking of reading it in English. By the way, did you know that he Spanish editions have the names translated? It’s a little bit weird (Discomundo, etc.).

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